Ill. senators Durbin, Kirk push Chicago River cleanup

By:  Lisa Black
Chicago Tribune

It was a beautiful day for a boat ride today on the Chicago River, where the wafting stench of sewage provided an appropriate backdrop for the message of the politicians on board.

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) announced their bipartisan support for the federal EPA's demand for improved water quality standards for the river, beginning with disinfecting wastewater that is regularly released into the waterway.

"Chicago is the last city in America that has not tackled this situation," Durbin said at a news conference at the North Branch Pumping Station on the city's Northwest Side, following the boat ride. "Come on, we can do better. "

He cited state estimates that more than 70 percent of the water in the Chicago River is partially treated sewage.

No one argued with that figure. Supporters in attendance included Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; Susan Hedman, the federal EPA's regional administrator; and two members of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago's elected board, Debra Shore and Michael Alvarez.

Officials addressed confusion over cost estimates of a clean-up, which have varied widely depending on the source. The EPA has estimated it would cost up to $50 million. The water district has predicted it would cost at least $1 billion.

Kirk said the EPA's estimate is worth the economic benefits through increased tourism.

"I would like to see the federal government help," he said, emphasizing that it's not likely to happen this year and that it will require cooperation of local, state and federal officials. "I am in favor of setting this as a goal. "

He suggested that the Water Reclamation District's $1 billion estimate included many non-essential steps.

Terrence O'Brien, president of the water district board and chief opponent of tougher water quality standards, did not participate in the boat ride or news conference.